Lockwood poised to shine this year

By Rita Papazian
Posted: 03/13/2009

Visualize in coming years the Lockwood Mathews Mansion Museum (LMMM) as a Victorian lady with her arms outstretched, welcoming new developments stretching from South Norwalk along West Avenue up to East Norwalk and Wall Street.
She'll certainly be standing tall in Mathews Park dressed in all her Second-Empire finery, a symbol of the elegance and grace of the late 1860s period when the mansion was constructed for financier LeGrand Lockwood and his family who moved to Elm Park, as the site was then known. And she will be prouder than ever, thanks to the recent restoration of her library's ceiling and woodwork.

But that's not all that the museum, which is now owned by Norwalk, has to boast about. As spring approaches, staff and volunteers are gearing up for what promises to be an extraordinary time for the mansion, which opens to the public again April 1, following its three-month winter closing.

This spring's reopening is particularly special for the city, Fairfield County and Connecticut. The reopening brings with it special attention not only to the restoration of the library, but completion of Phase I of its Master Plan, focus on the professional staff, including new assistant executive director, Susan Gilgore, training for new volunteers and special programs for children and adults, including a stellar lecture series. Sheldon Gerarden, former president of the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, who has been serving as the mansion's executive director, has now been named its permanent director. Board of trustees member Mimi Findlay, an historic preservationist, and longtime advocate for the mansion's restoration, praised Gerarden for his accomplishments since coming to the Mansion in 2007. "He's doing a wonderful job. He came when the board was fractured. He's done a remarkable job organizing the board. He knows what the agenda is to move us forward. I've known him 30 years. He knows everyone in Norwalk and knows where to go to get things to happen," Findlay said. To make things happen in terms of the Master Plan, the museum tapped David Scott Parker of Southport, an architect, preservationist and decorative arts authority, to complete Phase 1 of a systems upgrade. LMMM enlisted John Canning Painting and Conservation Studios of Cheshire, Conn., which specialize in decorative painting, conservation and restoration of historic interiors, to give the library its makeover. The company's credentials include the Connecticut State Capitol, the Boston Public Library, Grand Central Station and Radio City Music Hall, among many others. In the library, Canning restored the wainscot paneling, carved fireplace, bookcases, shutters, doors, door and window trim. All have been repaired and restored to their original French polish. In 1867, Lockwood had engaged Leon Marcotte, a former partner of Lockwood's architect Detlef Lienau to design and furnish the library. Marcotte and Mrs. Lockwood visited the Paris Exposition to select a sculpture for the library and wallpaper from the Parisian manufacturer Paul Balin. The heavy paper was embossed or stamped, engraved and printed in seven colors including metallic silver and gold to simulate antique leather. There is a sample of the library's original wallpaper framed and hanging in the library. The LMMM Foundation is currently seeking to replicate the wallpaper so it can once again hang in the library.

According to the mansion's latest newsletter, Marcotte "designed the room in an early Renaissance design, with paneled walnut wainscot and bookcases, pedimented window cornices, and short sturdy columns, all decorated with German Sliver nickel-plated bosses and flat panel appliqués.

The restoration was made possible through the generosity of the Meloy Foundation and Connie Nussbaum of Darien, a Mansion trustee.

In a recent telephone interview, trustee Findlay, who earned a degree in historic preservation from Columbia University and specializes in historic interiors, praised Marcotte's artistic talents and craftsmanship evident at the mansion, which contributes to its prominence as one of America's finest Victorian treasures. Built 20 years before the grand mansions of Newport, the mansion set the tone for elegant homes in the late 19th century.

In a booklet chronicling the mansion's history, editor Findlay and Doris Friend tell of the artists and artisans who were brought from Europe to work on the structure. "The stonemasons and woodworkers from Italy arrived on the decks of the ships, which transported the rare woods and marble in their holds. These craftsmen lived in the outbuildings on the property during the construction."

In the interview, Findlay described the mansion as "a really important series of interiors."

The mansion includes 62 rooms with a 42-foot octagonal rotunda at its core. A balcony circles it at the second floor level, to which the grand staircase rises on the north side. Lockwood, a great patron of the arts, used the rotunda to display his collection of paintings and statuary.

However, as with all the furnishings in the house, his art work was sold after his death in 1872 as his widow attempted to no avail to remain in the house.

The residence was eventually sold to Charles Drelincourt Mathews, a New York importer, whose family retained residency in the home until 1938.

Through the years, the Board of Trustees and LMMM Foundation has successfully learned the whereabouts of many pieces of furniture. Through fund-raising and generous donations, many of the original furnishings have been returned to the mansion. Many of the pieces represent the craftsmanship of brothers Gustav and Christian Herter of Germany.

Findlay describes the pieces as "gorgeous examples of beautifully crafted inlaid. The brothers brought hundreds of German immigrants to America to craft the furniture. Among the pieces were four leather upholstered, carved and inlaid walnut sofas, two of which have come back to the mansion. Findlay said the trustees learned the third sofa is at the Wooster Art Museum.

There are many pieces of furniture either from the Lockwood residency or the period that the Mathews family lived in the Mansion that have come back. These include dining room table and chairs, parlor furniture and drawing room furniture, plus the original dinnerware.

The mansion's overall restoration and maintenance is a painstaking process, which Findlay describes as taking "baby steps." Part of the process is getting a new generation to become aware of the mansion's significance in terms of its architecture, decorative arts and craftsmanship. She marvels at the success of the mansion's neighbor, Stepping Stones Children's Museum, in raising money and drawing support. It does not surprise her, however. When it comes to children people generously demonstrate their financial support and volunteer efforts.

Findlay also understands the challenge in raising funds to support the restoration, preservation and operation of a Victorian palace. The board of trustees relies on its annual appeal, grants and fund-raising events such as the annual Antiques & Appraisals Weekend in the fall. Also, the mansion can be rented out for weddings and other occasions. Developing a sense of pride

Findlay and the board of trustees, headed by Christopher Cooke, along with Gerarden and his new assistant director, Gilgore of Greenwich; and the corp. of volunteers, headed by local resident Rosalie Rinaldi, volunteer coordinator, and Brian Fischer, a facilities coordinator, are all working in consort to bring attention and vitality to the mansion through a variety of avenues, especially programming.

All agree, the mansion is a "national treasure."

Gerarden said, "We are enhancing the visitors' experiences so people will want to come back again and again, especially residents of Fairfield County," who, he added, will develop a "sense of pride" when they become aware of the restoration and special programming taking place this year.

"There's a lot of investment in this particular area," said Gerarden, in reference to the proposed development that is bookending the mansion. "Mathews Park will become our own Central Park. It's time to reach out and tell people about this area," he said.

Neither the Lockwoods or Mathews families wanted the mansion to be a shrine, but a place for people to enjoy and experience the beautiful artisanship and craftsmanship evident throughout the building.

Visitors will have an opportunity to see the library's restoration first-hand through tours and while attending some of the upcoming programs planned this spring.

For example, on opening day, April 1, the mansion will be open from noon to 4 p.m. with a special 50 percent discount off the admission fee. From 5 to 7 p.m., there will be a reception for LMMM members. There are a variety of memberships- individual, family, LeGrand Lockwood Circle, as well as corporate/business membership for people to join in order to support the Mansion.

Chairman Cooke, who is a native of Norwalk and head of The Senior Financial Center, Inc., 14 Overbrook Road, said he is excited about the mansion's special programming, the library's restoration and ongoing efforts to restore this Victorian Mansion. A graduate of Brien McMahon High School, he is especially excited about the opportunity to live in the city where he grew up and to give back to his community.

Gerarden added, "This is such a beautiful mansion. We need beauty in our life." Upcoming programming: On April 2, the mansion will offer a "Corsets to Consciousness" program at 7 p.m. Lingerie designer Joyce Baran of Stratford will share her lingerie collection and discuss its reflection of women's place in society. Walking through her collection spanning more than100 years, visitors will relive the expectations and tribulations women have shared from the inside out. On one Wednesday of each month at 11 a.m., the mansion will host a guest lecture, followed by a light lunch and tour of its first floor. On April 15, author-photographer Chester Burger will present a slide presentation and book-signing of "Unexpected New York: Eighty-Seven Discoveries in Familiar Places." Burger was America's first television news reporter in 1946, former national manager of CBS TV News, founder of the nation's first communications management consulting firm and a photographer whose works are in the collections of the New York Historical Society and the Public Library. In 1995, the U.S. Government honored him with its medal "For Outstanding Service to the U.S." On May 13, Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University will present a slide presentation, "Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girl." Eidelberg had discovered a cache of letters from Clara Driscoll to her family in Ohio, indicating she was the major designer of all floral stained glass lamp shades made in Louis C. Tiffany's studios at the turn-of-the-century. The only mention of her name prior to this discovery was in a 1904 New York Daily News article, quoting a French newspaper, giving her credit for designing the Tiffany Dragonfly lamp - both the shade and the mosaic-covered base - that had won a prize at the Paris International Exposition in 1900. The letters substantiate the claim that she was the designer of all Tiffany's lamps that had nature themes. On June 10, Marianne Curling will present "Meeting Expectations: the Everyday Lives of Victorian Women." Curling is a curatorial consultant specializing in collections of American material culture. She was the former curator of the Mark Twain House in Hartford where she managed all facets of collections care and presentation from 1984 to 2001. For the young set, volunteer Diane O'Connor is scheduling pre-school story hour the first Wednesday of each month at 10:30 a.m. beginning April 1. In discussing this new programming, O'Connor noted that this will be an opportunity for young parents to be introduced to the mansion. Beginning April 1, the mansion will offer tours Wednesday through Sunday, along with the specially education programs and special events. For information contact 838-9799 or e-mail info@lockwoodmathewsmansion.com